Paul Maurice has seen it all in his 26-year coaching career.
From small-town rinks to the professional ranks, across the pond and back again, nothing surprises him anymore.
Except, perhaps, the unbelievable support of Winnipeg’s passionate hockey fans. Truly, it’s one of a kind.
He knew what was ahead of him as the head coach of the Jets, but that was only part of the balancing act, juggling work, life and family, all in a new city – a new home.
Earlier this season, Maurice became the second-youngest coach in National Hockey League history to record 500 wins. Forty-seven at the time of the milestone – an 8-2 win over the visiting Florida Panthers – Maurice was two years and eight months older than the only one to do it faster, the legendary Scotty Bowman, who is the NHL’s all-time leader in wins.
As the youngest coach in the NHL history, Maurice won his first game on Nov. 7, 1995 as the now-defunct Hartford Whalers defeated the San Jose Sharks 7-3.
Oh, what a night. Champagne-worthy? Not quite.
“We hit the Burger King drive-thru on the way home,” Maurice said following the Florida game.
“Double Whopper?” one reporter asked.
“No, no. Let’s not get crazy,” Maurice replied.
The Whalers lost their next four, giving an early indication of just how difficult these ranks would be. But it truly was the start of something special. Having now surpassed Toe Blake and Pat Burns on the all-time wins list, Maurice, humble as ever in his post-game press conference, took a moment to thank those that helped him along the way.
“Mr. [Peter] Karmanos and Jim Rutherford are the two biggest influences on me, getting an opportunity to coach as young as I did and then staying with me,” he said.
“That’s really where my thoughts are right now.”
Maurice was 28 when he was given to the keys to the Whalers, with whom he spent three years before the organization was relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina. From 1997 to 2004, the Sault Ste. Marie, ON, product recorded 207 wins with the Carolina Hurricanes, guiding them to the 2002 Eastern Conference title and the franchise’s first appearance in a Stanley Cup Final.
“I have such an appreciation for those men, for their faith and support, and letting me learn in my job, on the job, which you just don't get to do in the NHL.
“Those two are the reason I'm here at 500 today.”
After a three-year stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization from 2005 to 2008, Maurice returned to Carolina for another four seasons behind the bench.
On Nov. 28, 2010, he became the 19th coach, and the youngest ever, to coach 1,000 NHL games
Before joining the Jets, Maurice spent the 2012-13 season as head coach of Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League (“for the adventure of it,” he told InFlight Magazine), stringing together a 27-13-12 record before returning home to North America, where the job of a lifetime became official on Jan. 12, 2014.
“It was a very, very quick [conversation],” Maurice said on Jan. 10, 2015 in Marina del Rey, California – one day before taking on the Los Angeles Kings in the middle of a difficult, three-game road trip through the Pacific Division. “I was actually up in Toronto doing some media work there and 36 hours later, I was on a plane to Winnipeg.”
His impact was felt immediately, as on the very next night, the Jets defeated the Arizona Coyotes 5-1 before packed house at MTS Centre, snapping a five-game losing streak and emphatically ushering in a new era for the organization. The Jets went on to win eight of their next 10 games and on Apr. 16, 2014 – after accumulating an 18-12-5 record in the back half of the 2013-14 campaign – Maurice was signed to a four-year extension.
“What I remember most is the national anthem,” Maurice said of that memorable night, his first as a Jet. “I remember standing behind the bench and having this great, big, internal smile about being back in the National Hockey League. You appreciate things like that as you get a little older. It was a great moment for me.”
A moment like that, like most of the sweetest things is life, is best enjoyed with the people you care about.
Paul and his wife, Michelle, have three children: Sydney, Jake and Luke. It was another new life for the family of four, who’d already seen their fair share of change.
“I’ve got teenagers and I’d moved them from Raleigh, where our last coaching gig was, to Columbus, Ohio, with the idea that that was going to be home for us,” Maurice said.
“Another move meant my daughter was going to her third high school in four years, so I had some explaining to do. More importantly, I wanted to know that if I were to move my family that it would be a place we could call home. I knew I did with the team. I felt like I did with the players, management and ownership, and I knew that very, very early on.
“Then I came to know the city. We’re really happy here. The move has been great on both levels, but as a dad, I’ve got a responsibility to those kids. I promised them I wouldn’t take a job unless we talked about it. It wasn’t very long after I got here that I knew this was a place I wanted to work.”
The feeling is mutual.
From his arrival a year ago, to the magic of today where the Jets are competing for playoff positioning, Maurice continues to teach. Fundamentally, that’s who he is – mild-mannered, rapt in knowledge and the route of achievement. Through injuries and all, the belief never wavered. The process never changed.
“The players worked hard here,” Maurice said. “If I thought I was going to have to come in here and pull teeth, it would have been too big a job. You’d come in, you’d do whatever you had to do to get them to work hard and compete, but you can’t survive that, in my mind, as a coach. I haven’t had to do that here. I really like the group of men that we have here, because they want to work.
“We’re still in the early stages. We’re playing a simple game of hockey right now and we’ve got to learn to love that. If we do, we can have a lot of success now, but there are other layers that we’ve got to get to. There are lots of things we can get better at, but we’re not trying to teach 50 things here this year. We want to get good at three or four things. Once we do that and that becomes our identity, then we’ll move on to those other things.”
What will come of it? That’s the exciting part, pushing the boundaries of an unlimited ceiling.
More than a year after his hire, Maurice still looks back on that memorable national anthem – that “great, big, internal smile” an apt and all-encompassing summary of his time in Winnipeg.
It’s more than a job in the National Hockey League. It’s home.
“The overall passion of the fans in Winnipeg… It’s more than that. It’s not just about the game of hockey – it’s the connection they have to their hockey team,” Maurice said.
“We’ve been here six months as a family, but we feel like we’ve lived here for 10 years now. I’m a coach and the wins and losses are important, but how you live and the opportunities your kids have to be happy, to make friends and enjoy life, that’s a big responsibility.
“I had a friend that used to live here say, ‘The people that live in Winnipeg grow to love it. I can’t explain it – they just love it.’ I now know what it is. It’s the people.
“It’s a great place to live”
— Ryan Dittrick